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Across the sport of MMA, fighters have long recognized that changing weight classes can give a struggling fighter a new lease on life. Fans don’t remember as well losses that came against fighters no longer in the same pool. Some buy into the notion that the fighter is now a better version of himself or herself thanks to having added muscle mass relative to opponents or no longer having to deal with as taxing of a weight cut. A fighter lost in the shuffle in one weight class can become a contender in a new weight class.
Of course, as fighters have figured this out, it has become an increasingly popular course of action. Lots of fighters try to revitalize their careers by switching weight classes, and those attempts are quickly forgotten because they fight no better or even worse at the new weight class. This in turn has led to more skepticism about the narrative of the revitalized fighter at the new weight class, which makes it even harder for fighters making the switch. It’s a difficult to trick to pull off.
In this climate, few fighters in the sport have leveraged well-timed switches in weight class as well as Anthony Pettis. Back in 2014, Pettis looked to be one of the signature stars of the sport. Unfortunately, his lightweight title run ended with a shocking beatdown at the hands of Rafael dos Anjos that kicked off a three-fight losing streak. Pettis quickly became a forgotten figure in a weight class he once dominated. Luckily for Pettis, it was a good time to quickly rise through the ranks at featherweight.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship featherweight division was in a state of chaos in 2016. Champion Conor McGregor moved up to lightweight without relinquishing the 145-pound title. Jose Aldo was interim featherweight champion but had his longstanding injury issues. Frankie Edgar had just lost to Aldo. That left things wide open, and Pettis managed to secure an interim title shot after one win over Charles Oliveira. A loss to Max Holloway in that bout coupled with a failed weight cut sent Pettis back to lightweight, where again he struggled.
Pettis’ 2-2 record in his return to lightweight belied the brutal punishment he took in losses to Dustin Poirier and Tony Ferguson. Pettis again was at risk of getting lost in the shuffle, which is when he called out Stephen Thompson for a welterweight fight. Thompson is one of the best fighters in his weight class, so Pettis would not be starting at a low spot. If he lost, he would be in basically the same position, while a win would greatly elevate his stature. It wasn’t necessarily a fight he had a great chance of winning, but it was one with a great risk-reward ratio.
The way Thompson-Pettis transpired at UFC Fight Night 148 on Saturday did not suggest it was a great matchup for Pettis. He was getting outstruck by the larger man, and his face was a mess. Luckily for Pettis, MMA is a sport where the tide can turn in a hurry, especially with his being a skilled striker. One electric Superman punch later, Thompson was unconscious and Pettis was talking about major fights at both 170 pounds and 155 pounds.
It’s not that hard to stay relevant when you’re an established fighter on an extended winning streak. Pettis, by moving up and down at the right moments, has kept himself in major fights despite losing six of 10. That’s a much more impressive feat in some ways. It certainly has a much higher degree of difficulty.
There are, of course, downsides to Pettis’ targeted weight switches. His move to 145 pounds ended with a rough weight cut that he didn’t come close to successfully making. Now at 170, he faces arguably even more risk. Holloway is a dangerous opponent for anyone, but he doesn’t pack the power of a Tyron Woodley or Kamaru Usman. It’s going to be difficult for Pettis to re-enter the lightweight title picture given his three most recent losses were to the two fighters -- Poirier and Holloway -- competing next month for the interim lightweight title and Tony Ferguson, a fighter who held the interim lightweight title last year and was stripped of it without losing.
Given that picture at lightweight, the strong push will be for Pettis to compete at welterweight. However, it’s altogether unclear whether that’s in Pettis’ best interest. Sure, it offers him a quicker path to the title mix. However, that is a fraught and dangerous path. Welterweight is becoming one of the strongest divisions in the sport, and Pettis is undersized against pretty much all of the top fighters. The win against Thompson has opened up a world of new possibilities for Pettis. The big question is where the pursuit of those possibilities will take “Showtime.”
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.